Sonoma County officials warn of potential new evacuation orders if winds push Glass fire beyond lines

The fire was threatening northern Napa Valley towns and could use rising winds to jump containment lines on its southern front in Sonoma County.|

Days of hard-fought progress and preparation in Sonoma and Napa counties are being tested as fire crews brace for shifting winds that threaten to push the 58,000-acre Glass fire closer to more populated areas. More than 28,000 buildings are at risk.

The transition to red-flag conditions, now predicted to last into Saturday morning, already was kicking up flames around the burn zone Thursday afternoon, putting the Napa County communities of Calistoga, Angwin and Pope Valley at immediate risk. According to Cal Fire on Thursday evening, the fire had claimed 153 homes in Napa County and 67 homes in Sonoma County and damaging another 69 homes.

Beginning around 5 p.m. Thursday, said Cal Fire Division Chief Ben Nicholls, winds were starting to blow stronger in higher elevations in the northern Sonoma County, marking the first of at least two nights of increased winds blowing over a large, uncontained wildfire.

“Our crews remain vigilant on the lines to monitor any hot spots and to quickly knock them down and extinguish them when they’re found close to the line and ensure that any spot fires or slop-overs out of the main fire are kept as small as possible,” Nicholls said. “Those crews will be at a heightened state of alert through the night, through the red flag event, to ensure that fire is held in check and any escape is rapidly engaged and hopefully caught.”

With containment only at 5%, the danger was widespread. Rising winds out of the northwest were expected to increase fire activity throughout the wildfire, raising the possibility of spot fires and putting pressure on southeastern perimeter lines near communities such as Glen Ellen and Kenwood in Sonoma County. Luckily, as of 9:30 p.m. Thursday, a Cal Fire spokesman said he was not aware of any significant flare-ups or changes in wind, though higher winds were still expected overnight.

One area west of Oakville and Highway 29 in Napa Valley already had demonstrated its vulnerability, as flames outflanked backfire operations, Cal Fire Operations Chief Mark Brunton said during a Thursday afternoon news conference at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.

Containment lines built in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park and tied to Highway 12 along Adobe Canyon Road also may be challenged if winds exert pressure on the southeastern flank, Brunton said. The National Weather Service has forecast gusts up to 35 mph at high elevations across the North Bay during the red-flag event. Such winds would be less intense than those that drove the fire to the outskirts of Santa Rosa on Sunday night and early Monday, but pose a risk.

“With this flow of wind, that is a concern for us,” Brunton said, pointing to ground that firefighters were seeking to guard above Sonoma Valley, much of it intentionally burned Tuesday night to deprive any advancing flames of fuel. “I have about a 50/50% confidence that line is going to hold, so there’s a potential threat to the community of Kenwood and potentially even Glen Ellen.”

The lull in winds over the past few days gave crews time to dig containment lines to block the fire from advancing, but Thursday and Friday nights were expected to bring conditions that continually test the strength of those defensive preparations.

“We would like to have more mop up prior to getting wind-tested,” Nicholls said, “but we’re at where we’re at, so we’re going to make sure that we’re ready for anything with the conditions that we’re in.”

Much of Kenwood and part of Glen Ellen already is under evacuation order, and Sonoma County sheriff’s officials said new orders were ready, if conditions warranted.

“My main message to you is that more evacuation orders are possible,” Sheriff Mark Essick said during the afternoon briefing.

Cal Fire Incident Commander Billy See said there would be time enough to alert Sonoma Valley residents in the event they might be affected by new fire activity in the coming hours and days.

“There will be plenty of warning,” he said in an interview.

He conceded during the briefing that the growing aggression of fire fronts in the steep and rugged Palisades area near the Napa-Lake County line, outside of Calistoga and and near Angwin were alarming.

After sunset, firefighters were set up along Highway 29 near Old Lawley Toll Road north of Calistoga where the Glass fire was threatening homes. Just south of there, firefighters lit a backfire at dozer line east of the highway, burning vegetation to limit the fire’s progress there.

“Obviously, the red-flag warnings with the high winds predicted are a huge concern for the management team and the Glass incident itself,” See said. “Multiple communities within Sonoma and Napa counties have been affected.”

Hi-lo sirens advocating evacuation rang out Thursday afternoon along the higher elevations of Highway 29 near Mount St. Helena, as Napa Police and sheriffs’ deputies from multiple counties moved to alert any remaining residents of the impending fire danger.

Winds were intensifying there by 2 p.m., and flames billowed from treetops along the slopes northeast of Calistoga thousands of feet above the valley floor. Two days after the entire city was evacuated, authorities issued additional orders for the northernmost reaches of Napa County as fire activity picked up and crews scrambled resources to the steep terrain near Robert Louis Stevenson State Park.

Overhead, helicopters crisscrossed the empty up-valley town, making water runs to the mountaintop despite poor visibility because of dense smoke.

Crews were laying the groundwork Thursday to protect Aetna Springs, Pope Valley and parts of Angwin where the fire had turned toward over the course of the day.

“It’s challenging right now,” said Cal Fire spokesman Erick Hernandez. “And the winds are picking up (Thursday night).”

The fire had raged by Old Lawley Toll Road since the morning and the roads had become impassable, limiting ground resources that could provide additional support from the valley floor. At least one resident who had disregarded evacuation orders was advised to shelter in place until the road was cleared, according to firefighters.

While the vast majority of the public has heeded orders so far, Hernandez said there are still some who wait to leave until the fire and black smoke are on their doorstep. Others have tried to return in the middle of active firefights.

“One of the things that makes it easier for us and also challenging is when people don’t want to leave. “We have a lot of crews trying to get into this area and we have people at roadblocks trying to get in,” Hernandez said. “We’re having issues getting to where we need to go because these people are creating traffic.”

The scars from the Glass fire’s initial run through Howell Mountain Sunday as areas west of the town ignited, including near a vineyard on Bell Canyon Road, pained Alan Viader of Angwin on Thursday morning.

From a popular lookout near a bend on Deer Park Road, a sprawling vista of the entire valley was transformed into an unfamiliar hellscape, with thick smoke blocking the once premier views. Several nearby vineyards and smaller farm properties had been reduced to rubble.

Viader, winemaker at Viader Vineyards and Winery, was surveying his family’s estate where the fire had stormed through Sunday night. They had created a defensible space to protect their structures, but the natural beauty that once lined the property now laid bare as blackened earth and stripped-down trees.

A glazed look washed over Viader as he took in the scene. He pointed out a rock wall the fire had exposed some 30 yards from the nearest facility. Viader had grown up on this estate, but decades later, seeing it in this form was hard to stomach, he said.

“I’ve never seen it this bad,” Viader said. “But we can come back from this.”

The number of firefighting personnel assigned to the Glass fire rose from about 2,100 to more than 2,500 on Thursday, though that’s still hundreds below what fire bosses want to fight a conflagration of this size. About two dozen other major wildfires are burning across California in a record-breaking season, with resources stretched thin even before the heart of fire season. Wildfires have burned nearly 4 million acres statewide, blowing away the previous record of roughly 1.5 million acres.

State officials including Gov. Gavin Newsom and Cal Fire Director Thom Porter visited the Napa Valley on Thursday. The governor, who was elected in 2018, pledged to ramp up California’s firefighting efforts after several years of increasingly dangerous wildfire seasons.

“We’ll continue our aggressive, without precedent, historic forest and vegetation management efforts (that) we’ve substantially increased in the last two years and we will increase them more into the coming years,” Newsom said.

But it will take “several decades” for California to get where it needs to after more than 100 years of fire prevention tactics “didn’t do the right thing,” Porter said at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds at a news conference.

“It’s not just more firefighters, it’s not just more aircraft, it’s not just more fuels reduction project work, it’s not just defensible space or home hardening — it is absolutely every one of those things,” Porter said. “We need every piece of the system to be raised to meet the challenge that the changing climate is giving us and that California is going to be in the future. Every acre in California can and will burn someday, and we need to embrace that and become resilient to it by embracing the entire-system approach to fixing this problem.”

Thursday also brought new restrictions affecting the Lake-Napa border, as authorities closed Highway 29 to all travel between Middletown and Calistoga.

Lake County had had no direct fire impact yet, and winds from the northwest were likely to push flames in the opposite direction, See said. “But with the terrain out there, the deep drainages, the heavy fuel loading and the dry conditions we’ve had, once that wind subsides, it’s still going to be a major concern because there’s a lot of areas we still could have uphill runs toward the Lake County area.”

Fire crews also have worked diligently in eastern Sonoma County, near the Napa County line, to secure the perimeter at Calistoga Road and put out hot spots to try to prevent winds from kicking up embers that could get into the Mark West Creek drainage, a main path of the devastating 2017 Tubbs fire.

See said winds out of the northwest could “bounce” off Mount St. Helena, and potentially spark fire in or near the massive Tubbs fire burn scar, though he sought to defuse fears of a repeat of that devastating blaze.

“I don’t want to fight fire in that drainage because it’s difficult to fight fire in that drainage,” he said.

Brunton said the perimeter line otherwise looked “very favorable and good” along Highway 12 and lower Calistoga Road near Oakmont and Santa Rosa.

About 11,800 PG&E customers remained without power due to the Glass fire or because of requests by firefighters, said PG&E spokeswoman Deanna Contreras. About 5,300 of these customers are in Santa Rosa, Oakmont and Kenwood, she said, as crews restored power to “several hundred” customers in Rincon Valley or along Calistoga Road.

PG&E has already identified 326 power poles in the Santa Rosa area that will need to be replaced due to fire damage, she said.

Though the fire is only 5% contained, there’s some good news in that number for Santa Rosa residents, according to Nicholls, as the area of containment stretches behind Rincon Valley and Skyhawk, across Channel Drive near Annadel and Spring Lake Regional Park.

“Crews are making great headway in the low country over here on the east side of Santa Rosa and are aggressively patrolling along the area along the Highway 12 corridor to make sure that there’s no hot spots in and around those homes,” Nicholls said.

Staff Writers Julie Johnson and Martin Espinoza contributed reporting. You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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